Research constraints, acceleration and commercialisation; the pursuit for impact

02-11-21 USAf 0 comment

Covering from funding constraints at the National Research Foundation through the marvellous alacrity of research interventions brought about by CoViD-19 to the importance of establishing innovation hubs across our universities, three speakers tried to flesh out what research impact means to the country right now.

“Research impact is real change in the real world”. This was the opening statement of Dr Thandi Mgwebi, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation, and Internationalisation at the Nelson Mandela University who chaired the Research Impact session of Universities South Africa’s Research and Innovation Strategy Group (RISG) at the recent 2nd Higher Education Conference. For Professor Mgwebi, impact must be measurable but can take a myriad of forms. From attitudinal shifts, awareness, cultural shifts to hard economic and social impacts, one thing is clear. It requires a huge effort to ensure that research does have an impact. For funding organisations as well as other donors there is a real push towards seeing the impacts of research beyond the narrow confines of the academy.

Impact is one the priority areas that has been identified by the Universities South Africa’s Research and Innovation Strategy Group (RISG), said Professor Thoko Mayekiso, the Group’s Chairperson and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mpumalanga. She noted the high cost of research, especially high-level research, and how it has meant that funders are more demanding for tangible fruits of all research. While once it was enough for research results to be limited to scholarly output, now the set of indicators have widened to reflect transparency of benefits to include a range of aspects, such as social and economic contribution. For this reason, this session would reflect a diverse grouping of experts to attempt to give multiple perspectives on the subject.

Doing more with less

It is difficult for the CEO of the National Research Foundation to talk about increased and impactful research when the organisation is in a financial squeeze. However, Professor Fulufhelo Nelwamondo (left) was quick to point out that not only was the NRF facing funding challenges, but all funding agencies globally, were struggling. The challenge facing South Africa is that given the high rate of unemployment and the obvious needs on the ground, to allocate funding to research becomes a hard call and must promise something useful at its completion. Based on its latest Strategic Plan, the NRF is committed to four elements: transformation, impact, excellence and sustainability.

To achieve these, a Task Team was appointed in May 2020, guided by a reference Group. The draft Framework was completed by December 2020 and it was distributed for comment. An external Task Team, Chaired by Professor Ahmed Bawa, Chief Executive Officer of USAf, was established in 2021, with members from universities and Science Councils. Consultations with various stakeholders were held for inputs and a final draft was developed.

Aiming at a working definition of research impact, Professor Nelwamondo pointed out that investments in the research system should produce tangible outcomes – both within the knowledge enterprise and for societal benefit. Indeed, the NRF’s mandate emphasises its contribution to national development, and this is captured in Vision 2030:

  • Research for a better society.
  • To enable and facilitate the contribution of knowledge and scientific research to national development.

This is also echoed in the Department of Science and Innovation’s Decadal Plan which emphasises the role of science and research in contributing to society and to national development priorities.

Slippery research

Transformation will be a guiding principle in the Framework in a way that goes beyond demographics. As if his task was not sufficiently complex, Professor Nelwamondo touched on the key point that research is, in itself, an immensely slippery concept — research impact cannot always be predicted, is not time-bound, and is not achieved through a sequential process. Establishing partnerships, maintaining excellence and working across all disciplines and all areas are the way to go.

Getting down to the nub of research impact, he sought to differentiate between two kinds of impact. Firstly, societal impact which is about the value (social, economic or environmental). It is inclusive of innovation, technological advancements, and policy development and bolsters the relationship between research and improvement in the quality of people’s lives. Secondly, knowledge impact is about scientific advances in understanding, interpretation, methods, theory, etc.

The framework breaks research into several processes (see above). Inputs are all resources invested into the knowledge enterprise to support, promote and advance research impact. Activities are any actions (collaboration for example) that directly or indirectly advance new knowledge, new applications of knowledge, innovation, commercialisation or human capital development. Outputs are research products, new knowledge, policy briefs/ proposals, engagement, collaboration, methods, patents and skills produced as a result of the NRF’s inputs. Outcomes are application or use of outputs by the research enterprise or by society. Finally, Impact refers to a beneficial change in society or knowledge advancement, whether planned or unintended; immediate or long-term.

These changes are going to require an entirely new mindset of the NRF’s selections for funding as well as the approach that researchers use when applying for funding. This is especially the case when the research impact cannot be accurately anticipated. This also has consequences for each of the five processes listed above. The way that we conceptualise these activities will have to respond to being able to measure research impact. For example, the rating system might need to incorporate all elements of research excellence, inclusive of impact.

The Research and Innovation Strategy Group which led the discussions on Research Impact, is one of USAf’s strategy groups whose function is to advise the USAf Board on research and innovation matters in the sector. In addition to Research Impact, the RISG dedicated two other sessions of the 2nd Higher Education Conference to deliberate on Research Integrity and the Engaged University and Research Collaborations (domestically and internationally). This choice of sub-themes was highly inspired by the RISG’s current priority projects which also extend to promoting open science and open access; building platforms for collaboration across the sector and internationally; transformation and capacity development; funding for postgraduate studies and research; and research infrastructure – especially in the current context.

Written by Patrick Fish, an independent writer commissioned by Universities South Africa.